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River’s bounty feeds angler’s desires, guides’ businesses

By Hank Dewald, Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted in the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald – April 27, 2009

Rod Thomas, or Captain Ponytail as he is known professionally, and Lauren Stephenson hold one of the "keeper" striped bass Lauren caught Friday morning fishing on the Roanoke River.

WELDON — For a month or so, the Roanoke River is home to several professional fishing guides who have found the shiny, silver striped bass that swim up the river from the Albermarle Sound to spawn, a great springtime bonus.

While there are several local guides like Bryan Davis, Bobby Phillips, Richard Lee and Mike Shearin who realize the economic value of the Roanoke River and the reservoirs it helped man make, visiting anglers and the professional guides who have come to service them often go unnoticed.

Rod Thomas, better known from his work with television shows and N. C. Wildlife videos as Captain Ponytail, a professional fishing guide from Lexington, lives with his wife Smokey on Highrock Lake. Friday, he reserved a morning of fishing for Ponderosa Campground owner Greg Stephenson and his daughter, Lauren. Thomas is making his temporary home at the Ponderosa and invited the Daily Herald along to see what these guides do on the river.

"There are actually 10 to 12 guys here from other areas, guiding trips up and down the river," Thomas said as he and Smokey prepared the huge tanks full of live herring minnows and threadfin shad they sell at the campground with Stephenson.

The Thomas pair had trouble finding bait the first few years the captain guided trips on the Roanoke. They solved the problem by starting their own bait service with Stephenson, who sells Christmas trees in the location during the holidays.

Thomas has one of the larger boats seen on the river this time of year, a 24-foot Triton center console, fiberglass-hull boat that can comfortably carry four anglers. He launches the boat each morning and hauls it out each afternoon with his brightly colored sport utility vehicle, which acts and looks like a rolling billboard for Captain Ponytail's Guide Service.

Once six-dozen live shad were transferred from the huge water tanks at the campground, to the large bait tank aboard Thomas' boat, it was off to the Weldon boat landing.

The Friday morning launch pointed out one of the glaring difficulties anglers face fishing the river in Weldon and Roanoke Rapids, a lack of good boat ramps and tie-off areas for launching boats.

"That problem really should be addressed and frankly I'm surprised it hasn't by now," Thomas said diplomatically. He faces the same problem every morning and afternoon and said he was surprised no one has been injured so far this year.

Once loaded and underway, Thomas' first stop was directly across the river where he purchased larger gizzard shad from Adam Brooks, a neighbor of Thomas from Highrock Lake, who is selling bait from a boat anchored on the river.

There is big money in the bait business here, and other than the Roanoke River Trading Company located near the Weldon boat ramp, there were no other locals selling bait in the area.

Thomas explained he was interested to see which bait the hungry stripers preferred as he motored down river past what locals call the “big rock.” He expertly wove the large boat through a maze of boats of all kinds drifting or anchored.

Captain Ponytail made the process look simple, but one look at less experienced anglers trying to fish and keep their boat positioned, brought a new sense of appreciation for his skills.

With the bow of the large boat perpendicular to the shoreline and enough space between surrounding boats, the entire river seemed alive with boats sitting still, but moving as one, as if they were all on some escalator going down river towards the sea. Everything flowed well until the escalator found a boat or two anchored in the river. Then, everyone had to move and re-position themselves until past the obstruction.

Once Thomas had three anglers baited up and fishing, Lauren was the first to boat a striper. She boated the first three fish and seemed to have found the perfect spot on the boat to catch all the fish. Later, her father began matching her fish for fish.

Another problem when fishing the river is snagging, or hooking, underwater obstructions. With the river’s current, the snag will often snap the fishing line leaving the angler without hook, line, sinker or bait.

Captain Ponytail is usually quick to the rescue with a freshly baited rod. "If customers aren’t catching fish, they're not happy," Thomas said while tying on another hook and expertly repositioning the boat at the same time. "If they don't have a baited hook in the water, there is no way they can catch fish," he said matter-of-factly.

After what many called a slow morning on the river, which meant that in just three hours drifting and catching a dozen-or-so fish, the three happy anglers were deposited back on shore with their limit of two fish per angler, where they smiled and greeted Captain Ponytail's next group of out-of-state anglers as they scrambled aboard for their half day of fishing fun.

“That is what it's all about,” Thomas said. "We provide people a half or full day of fishing and they don't need to bring a thing. We provide everything for them and for most people that is how they want to fish. We (fishing guides) take all the hassles and trouble out of fishing. They can sit back, enjoy it and go home with fish to cook and hopefully, stories to tell."

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